BY CORY HURLEY
CORNER BROOK, NL – After a hard day’s work on Wednesday, April 25, lobster fishermen of the south shore of the Bay of Islands were essentially throwing their money back in the water for safe keeping.
Throughout the late afternoon and into early evening of opening day of the lobster fishery, much of the talk on the wharf at Little Port was about the uncertainty around buyers for lobster.
Fishermen with upwards of 40 and 50 years experience say they never had to store their catch along the coastline, waiting for buyers to pay for the crustaceans. Now, they have done so two years in a row.
When asked about the waiting game they are playing, most laugh and shake their heads. They don’t find anything funny about the dispute between the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union and buyers in Newfoundland and Labrador, but what else can these hard-working men do?
Sheldon Sheppard, and his father Sam, left Little Port at 6 a.m. They had set their traps Monday, like more than 30 other lobster fishermen utilizing the Little Port docks, and Wednesday they were finally hauling their pots. After a week’s delay, hoping the dispute over lobster prices would be resolved, it was time to make their living. Well, sort of.
Wednesday morning was blowing a gale, causing some lobster fishermen to wait out the morning high winds. Not the Sheppards, they were raring to go, and the sultry day was a help for morale. More than 10 hours later, they pulled ashore with an estimated 700 pounds of catch.
They were pleased with the abundance of lobster. The duo licence holders had 220 pots out. They pulled their speedboat — painted orange and green like many of the others — up to the wharf, where other fishermen passed down the iron crates for the lobsters storage along the ocean bottom.
There were no buyers waiting for them this year, a strange spectacle in the lobster fishery. Instead there were just a few people from the community — friends and neighbours, wives and children — waiting to see them safely ashore with their catch.
“This year and last year has been the only time there has been this much uproar about the prices,” Sheldon said, while expertly snapping the lobster claws together with elastic bands. “Any other time you would just come into the wharf, sell your lobster, and go on. Last year, and this year, has been hectic. I don’t know why.”
The uncertainty of when there will be a resolve is bad enough, but lobster fishermen at Little Port Wednesday said not hearing anything is worst. Fishermen say they are not receiving any updates on the situation. They are forced to carry on fishing, hoping there will eventually be someone there soon to purchase the lobster.
Sam is confident things will end positively, and they will earn a good wage for their hard work.
“I am not too worried I guess,” the elder Sheppard said. “Someone will buy them, one of these days.
“It would be nice to know what you are going to get for it. Nobody is talking, or they are keeping it quiet anyway.”
Following a series of meetings Sunday, fishermen decided to create a co-op to buy their own lobster and ship it later this week. Some fisherman in Little Port do not necessarily believe the merits of that notion, thinking local buyers will eventually be taking the lobster off their hands.
About 15 minutes after the Sheppards arrived, another dedicated duo pulled up alongside the wharf. Brothers Edward and Gerard Joyce hauled an estimated 700-800 pounds Wednesday, leaving 5:30 a.m. and getting back close to 4 p.m. The have a licence each, and set approximately 440 pots from Little Port to Coal River.
“It was OK,” Gerard said of the catch. “If we could sell them, it would be a lot better.”
“If we could get $5 a pound for them, it would be a lot better,” his brother added.
The Joyces said their focus was on fishing Wednesday, but the weight of the buyers situation is a lot to bear. They said not hearing anything at all is tough to deal with, but they think the buyers will be looking for lobster soon. They have their doubt about the co-op.
“That is all squashed, I heard,” Gerard said. “We had Nova Scotia people coming here, but they told them to stay away.”
“It’s the same as the mafia,” Edward added.
“It is time for them to smarten their act up, I’d say,” Gerard said. “If we have to keep waiting around the season will be over. You can’t store too many lobster around here.”
However, as of the season’s beginning, that is what they are forced to do, whether they want to or not. Today, fishermen will be back on the water again, checking their pots, hauling their catch, storing lobster inshore until a buyer is waiting wharfside for their arrival.